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Dalai Lama’s Succession: China Paradox

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Dalai Lama’s Succession: China Paradox

Tenzing Dhamdul*

Who after Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama? This question has been making the rounds for a long while. There are no answers – neither long nor short, as yet   When he was in Ladakh recently, His Holiness told a gathering of admirers and Buddhists, that he was healthy. “I will be living for more than (another) 30 years. See, I am very healthy,” he remarked with a twinkle in his eye, as everyone present lustily cheered the octogenarian.  

The Dalai Lama (Ocean of Wisdom) is known to Tibetans as Gyalwa Rinpoche (Precious Jewel-like Buddha-Master), Kundun (The Presence), and Yizhin Norbu (The Wish-Fulfilling Gem).  He is considered to be the successor in a line of incarnations of Avalokite?vara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. For the world, Dalai Lama is synonymous with Tibet, even as the he continues to face incessant attacks from the atheists in Beijing’s driver seat.  

By tradition, phowa is the discipline that is believed to transfer the mind-stream to the intended body. Upon the death of the Dalai Lama and consultation with the Nechung Oracle, a search for the Lama’s yangsi, or reincarnation, is conducted.

The government of the People’s Republic of China has stated its intention to be the ultimate authority on the selection of the next Dalai Lama.

Tenzin Gyatso was identified as the reincarnation of his predecessor when he was two years old.  Since his childhood, he is confronted by the Chinese might, who not only took control of his beloved Tibet but also forced him and several other fellow Tibetans into exile in India. He has been constantly attacked without any remorse as a ‘Wolf in Monks robe’, dubbed as a terrorist/separatist and his supporters are termed as ‘Dalai Clique’.

Well, Beijing has been propagating the notion of their say in selecting the next reincarnation. Its Sept 1, 2007 Order (Order no 5) outlines ‘Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism.’  It stipulates that reincarnation application must be filled by all Buddhist temples in China ‘before they are allowed to recognize the reincarnated lamas. The Chinese state thus made itself the final arbiter on whether a lama is reincarnated or not, needless to say to the dismay of Tibetans at home and abroad.


Reincarnation is the belief system practiced in Tibet. It sees a high lama take birth in human form after his Parinirvana.   

For the uninitiated in Buddhist lore, Parinirvana implies release from the Sa?s?ra, karma and rebirth.   It is the realm of the eternal true Self of the Buddha, according to Mah?y?na literature.   The reincarnation process not only affirms and appreciates the work of the former great lama but also upholds the legacy and carries it forward.

Karmapa, the head of Kagyu sect (a major Tibetan Buddhist sect) started the practice. And it is followed by other sects including the Gelugpa sect, which the Dalai Lamas are affiliated to.   

The Chinese authorities are seizing this very sacred and traditional space cherished by the Tibetans for more than six centuries. They want to be the anointer of the next Dalai Lama.


Beijing is aware of the significance of the institution of Dalai Lama. And has tried its best to bring Tibet and the Dalai Lama under its wing after the occupation of the Buddhist abode.

Chairman Mao famously stated ‘The cause of Tibet is lost’, when he got wind of the fact that the 14th Dalai Lama had escaped the Communist clutches and sought asylum to India.

This remark underpins the fact that Tibet and the Dalai Lama are synonymous to Communist regime’s ultimate goal of assimilating Tibet completely under the banner of the Chinese motherland.

The Chinese leadership has come up with various plans, ploys and tactics to realize their objective in Lhasa.

First, they floated polices like Order No 5 to pump-prime their narrative of China’s claim over the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.

Second, they twisted and tonsured history to show how since the Manchu’s (who ruled China from 1644 to 1911/12), it is China that gives final blessings when it comes to the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.

Third, China has played foul with Panchen Lama, the second highest lama in Gelugpa hierarchy. The Communist Party of China, CCP, regime dismissed and captured the Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who was selected by the 14th Dalai Lama. And installed their puppet, Gyaltsen Norbu in his place. 

Panchen is deemed incarnation of the Amitabha, Buddha of Infinite Light. He is close to the Dalai Lama and both enjoy the relationship of a master and apprentice.   Amitabha is said to have status higher than Avalokitesvara (Dalai Lama) but in terms of political and religious affairs, the Dalai is “stronger”, according to Tibetan Buddhism.

This digression into traditions, practices and above all beliefs is to point out how crafty the Chinese have been on an issue dear to the Tibetans.  Having Panchan Lama under their control gives them more say in matters succession, especially the spiritual upbringing of the next Dalai Lama.


Expectedly, the Chinese have met with backlash from the Tibetans. Also from the world at large.

Two years ago, the US Congress (Parliament) passed the Tibetan Policy Support Act, 2020 displaying a bi-partisan support to the Tibetans and their cause.  “Tibetans have the sole and only authority when it comes to the selection process of the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama”, the American law said unambiguously.

The US support to Tibet is further consolidated by the ‘Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Conflict Act’, which was tabled in Congress on July 13, 2022 by Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Michael McCaul, R-Texas. It empowers “the Office of the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues to counter Communist Party propaganda about the history of Tibet, the Tibetan people and Tibetan institutions, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama”.  Also reaffirms the US position on Tibet’s legal status and terms Chinese claims over Tibet as false and disinformation.   

India’s position on Tibet is clear over the years. Prime Minister Modi greeted the Dalai Lama on his birth day on July 6. The All-Party Indian Parliamentary Forum for Tibet has proposed that India adopt a policy on the lines of the US Tibet Policy to lend ‘support to the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama being solely in the hands of the Tibetans’.  

On his part, the Dalai Lama has suggested “different possibilities to identify” his successor but has “not publicly specified the ritual qualification” and “mystical signs” about the rebirth.  

He held out a message to China, which is seen as a snub.

“In future, in case you see two Dalai Lamas come, one from here (India), in free country, one chosen by Chinese, then nobody will trust, nobody will respect (the one chosen by China). So that`s an additional problem for the Chinese! It`s possible, it can happen,” he told Reuters three years ago on a day after Tibetans marked the anniversary of his escape from Lhasa, disguised as a soldier.

Dalai Lama has also spoken as to how it would be the Tibetans who would have the sole authority over his reincarnation and succession. A sentiment in sync with the Tibetans who follow him spiritually, unlike the Communist Chinese counterparts, who have been brought up on the Mao idiom that ‘Religion is Poison’.

Tibetans will not like to let the 14th Dalai Lama’s legacy to wither away with age but carry it forward to the next phase. For them and for everyone else, a priority should be not handing over the initiative to Beijing (POREG)

—— * The writer is a researcher with roots in Tibet